Often it is our first instinct to try our best to “just forget” when bad things happen to us. Sometimes this is because others want us to “move on” or because we put pressure on ourselves to “leave the past in the past.” While trying to let go, forgive, or rebuild are all great goals for a survivor and can absolutely be achieved, they cannot be accomplished without first dealing with the thoughts and feelings caused by the abuse or trauma. Moving on without dealing is the equivalent of attempting to rebuild on top of a building that has been bombed without first clearing away the debris and securing the foundation.
The prospect of sifting through the debris, of letting these thoughts and feelings out, can be scary. Survivors often struggle with feelings of confusion, rage, guilt, shame, and anxiety among others. These feelings are often buried, drowned out, or rushed past in an attempt to move on. You may fear that if you acknowledge these feelings, if you let them out, that they threaten to overwhelm you or incapacitate you. So naturally, we push them away or shut them off.
This is a natural coping mechanism we all have. It is our first instinct to protect ourselves, even emotionally, but while this may be helpful in the short term by allowing you to gain some distance from the abuse or trauma, it can ultimately be harmful if used as a long-term plan for coping. In essence, it is often the fear of facing these feelings that keeps you stuck.
It is for this reason that survivors are at a much higher risk of developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other concerns. The symptoms of PTSD can be overwhelming for an individual and can be extremely challenging in a relationship. Survivors struggling with PTSD can benefit from Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT), which has been shown to be tremendously successful in helping even the most severe cases of PTSD. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) can also help with a variety of the other concerns that often plague survivors of abuse or trauma including depression, anxiety, and substance abuse.
In order to truly move past it, therapy offers a place to acknowledge these feelings, to give them a name, and to let them out somewhere you feel both safe and understood. It is an opportunity to face your story and to rewrite it, side by side.
Regretfully, the damage caused by sexual abuse and trauma often does not end once the abuse stops, but rather has lifelong implications on the health of survivors. Survivors of sexual assault are far more likely to suffer from a variety of mental health and substance abuse concerns including 3x more likely to become depressed and possibly suicidal, 6x more likely to develop PTSD, and 13x more likely to develop substance abuse problems.
Childhood sexual abuse, in particular, can have far reaching mental, emotional, social, and relational effects as a result of the significant disruption to many aspects of normal childhood development. Thus, similarly to adults, it puts children at a significantly higher risk for developing depression, anxiety, PTSD, drug and alcohol problems, as well as attempting suicide.
1 out every 10 children will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday. Only 1 out of every 3 cases of abuse are actually reported, leaving two-thirds to suffer silently. Sadly, the effect of the abuse may be compounded at times when children who have the courage to report it are disbelieved or even blamed for the abuse.
If you discover or suspect an instance of childhood abuse, sexual or otherwise, it should be reported immediately to the state’s child protective agency (Department of Children and Families in Florida) and/or the police. Click here to file a report online today if you know or suspect a child is being abused.
Sadly, while survivors often feel alone in their struggle, the reality is that approximately 1 out of every 6 women and 1 out of every 33 men is a victim of rape over the course of their lifetime3.
It is understandable if you don’t want to talk about it. Survivors are often told by their abusers, their family, and sometimes society itself to just “move on.” Sometimes silence follows a fear of retribution by the abuser, feelings of shame or guilt, fear of being blamed or not believed, or wanting to simply “leave it in the past.”
Despite that it often goes unreported to authorities, sexual abuse is one of the most common reasons for seeking therapy as an adult. This is likely due, at least in part, to the high rate of anxiety, depression, and PTSD among survivors. Counseling can also provide a safe place to work through a traumatic experience that you may not feel comfortable sharing with others in your life.
In my work with survivors, the feelings of shame can be by far the most isolating. Prior to beginning therapy, survivors often see themselves as broken and damaged – beyond repair. They believe they cannot possibly share their stories without judgment from others, or worse, others taking advantage of their “weakness.” This shame can be healthy in some ways as it keeps survivors from sharing with anyone and everyone about their most vulnerable experiences, however, it also means missing out on the support and connection with others who DO understand and who DON’T judge. It is these connections in particular that help to break down feelings of shame over time.
So as much as you may not want to talk about it, the paradox of it is that by talking about it, you take some of the power out of it. It is for this reason that such vast online communities of survivors and loved ones have come together to share stories and support. Sometimes sharing your stories anonymously online can be the beginning of the catharsis you’re looking for. Check out some of the following organizations for more information, to read stories of recovery or to share your own.
Childhood Sexual Abuse: Forgiving the Child Within
Is Your Traumatic Past Sabotaging Your Relationship? Part One: Trusting Your Partner
Is Your Traumatic Past Sabotaging Your Relationship? Part 2: Checking Out
Is Your Traumatic Past Sabotaging Your Relationship? Part 3: The Code of Silence
PTSD: Do You Blame Yourself For What Happened to You?